The SNP Manifesto has outlined proposals for how they aim to bring “greater clarity, transparency and speed to the process” should they form the next Scottish Government. So far the proposed changes seem to have been welcomed by Scotland’s salmon farmers.
If re-elected, the SNP have set out their intent to explore how a “single determining authority” for farm consents could look in Scotland, as they look to model a system similar to that in Norway where the Directorate of Fisheries acts as a one-stop-shop for aquaculture licences. The SNP Manifesto also pledges to support innovation in aquaculture including the development of land based closed containment fish production. There is also reference to an expectation that producers will contribute more to local communities potentially through a Norwegian-style auction system.
Meanwhile in Scotland………
Under the current system in Scotland, four consents are required before a fish farm can be developed and stocked:-
planning permission from the local planning authority;
a marine licence from Marine Scotland;
an aquaculture licence from the Fish Health Inspectorate; and
a licence controlling discharges to the water environment from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
The involvement of four regulators means four application processes, which can result in a time-consuming and costly process. In addition, each of these regulators will consult the other three on each application. The consenting process may be unsuccessful if one of the regulators refuses an application. The principle of this process is that the operator must identify, assess and justify each proposed site prior to making consent applications, rather than an auction system where tonnage can be bid for in a specific area.
However, in Norway…..
There is more than one regulator controlling fish farms in Norway but the Directorate of Fisheries coordinates the consenting process by being a one-stop-shop and liaising with the other regulators. The regulators are legally obliged to undertake an efficient and coordinated processing of applications.
The reference in the SNP Manifesto to exploring a Norwegian-style auction system is to the process in Norway whereby the Directorate of Fisheries controls the number of farms that are consented. The Directorate decides when licences are allocated and their geographical distribution. An announcement is made when licences are being allocated and applications are invited.
Impacts of the potential change on the Salmon Industry
The SNP’s proposals have been welcomed by the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (the SSPO) The creation of a single determining authority could in principle reduce delays and result in a more coordinated approach to proposals for new farms.
The chief executive of the SSPO has commented that he hopes the change “would end delays and bureaucratic confusion which plagues the system in Scotland – without restricting official scrutiny or public consultation on fish farm applications”.
The proposals are in very broad terms and, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. It is not currently clear whether the proposal is for an entirely new fish farm consent which will consolidate existing consents or whether a co-ordinating body is planned. Either way there will be questions over the roles of existing regulators and opportunities for public consultation. There may be concern that the prospect of a single determining authority would undermine local democracy if the local authority has a reduced part to play in granting planning permission. The SNP have emphasised that the Norwegian system which they are looking to follow still holds a role for local authorities and that local communities would continue to have a part to play. Indeed, planning permission would still have to be a part of an umbrella consent and so third parties and members of the public would still have the chance to object to applications. Changes will need legislation, and will no doubt be subject to extensive consultation.
The Norwegian auction-based system, which is referred to in the Manifesto, is the auction of salmon production licenses by the Directorate of Fisheries. The west coast of Norway is divided into 13 zones which each have either a green, amber or red light depending on the number of sea-lice in the zone. A green light means that expansion may be allowed while a red light means that tonnage must be reduced. Ministers prescribe the number of licences to be allocated and their geographic distribution. The money raised from the auctions is distributed to local authorities which have salmon farms in their areas through the Aquaculture Fund.
It is possible that the introduction of a similar auction system in Scotland could have an effect on expansion plans and limit the industry’s ability to select the location of proposed new farms. However, the SNP Manifesto is very light on detail and we do not know what form an auction system may take. A case of ‘watch this space’.
If implemented, the proposals in the SNP Manifesto may change the landscape for salmon producers both financially and in terms of the ability to increase production. If the SNP are successful on 6th May it will be interesting to see how their proposals develop, what an auction-based system would look like and who would assess and decide where new fish farms will be located – the regulators or the producers. Changes will no doubt require extensive consultation prior to the necessary legislation coming forward and so there will opportunity for the industry to comment.
Celine Skinner contributed to this article.